Back to Issue Twenty-Seven.

Ode to the Old Barbers



there were three.
i went to the man in the middle
who knew the least english.
bulbous cheeks like cherry snow
cones. a laurel or hardy mustache.

Chicago had a polish radio station
low in the am, an all-day murmur.
the chatter of a different country
in a neighborhood of new comers
when Ukrainian Village was polish
& Mexican.

Black combs bathed in electric blue.
mirrors everywhere, an infinite endless
reflection. grey smocks & grey haired
barbers who brought their lunch to work;
brown bags with pickled beets, cabbage
stuffed with sausage & rice.

the blade, exacto knife precise, over
my ear, clip the lip meticulous, a geometric
concern. sculptors of chin, when i knew
no one else, they took me in. i told them
my bubbe was polish, cześć, we joked
we were cousins, though the mother
country rounded her kin into pogroms.

hands of oak & pipe tobacco, hold
a knife at my throat. the sharp
gallant scent of aftershave. baby
powder on my neck like a kolaczki.
they’d send me back into the world
anew, lines sharper than the viaducts.
feelin like a million bucks for twelve.
i’d tip three, every two weeks



until the sign
says closed

& the massage spa neon



The Gallerist



squats in a storefront long enough to open a coffee shop/gallery
called Yo Mama’s Cafe. he stretches the sun up in a doorway
on the avenue. the ancients wake & stroll past. he’s shirtless
in karate pants. lumberjack shirt, denim overalls & roller skates.
tremendous locks race down his back. he shaves his head
& wears snow goggles. in the summer he walks to the Arab
store for drum & rolling papers. there’s an espresso constantly
steaming at his elbow. a canary. he carries hardbound books
in a belt strapped to his bicycle. Foucault & Public Enemy. Fear
of a Black Planet un-ejectable from his walkman. he’s always
alone in thunderous headphones & has a hundred girls on his arm.
his bed lays in the middle of a furniture-less future. he stirs a pot
of gumbo beneath the blue line & sells paintings he found in the alley
embellished with crowns. he’s avenue royalty in a gas station onesie
chuck taylors jackson pollacked & laceless. he’s 36 & a visionary.
he’s 49 & a screwball. he’s from the south. he is from the south
side. he’s skateboarding down the ave in adidas joggers & a gas mask
three stripes & apocalypse, going nowhere in particular.



The Oil & Incense Man



you could smell from three blocks away.
forest of sticks lit & burning. a smoke stack
under-arm portable salesman able to skate
if the cops come. rambo ammo holsters
holding sweet roll-on bottles X-ed
across his chest: amber, frankincense & myrrh.
the wise man who woulda brought gifts to baby Jesus
& brings holy odors to Jesus’s mother off 26th St.
feng shui for the hood. kufi-ed & righteously perfumed.
Malcolm’s paperback in one pocket. an accountant’s ledger
in the other. a beautiful light blue button up
beneath a khaki trench coat. slangin scents
so the public stays fresh in all seasons.
permitless & perpetually illegal. ancient
off a red line near you. a mobile economy
out the corner store. pink wands wafting
from a card table, vials splayed in a park
to anoint the neck. a bouquet of jasmine
nag champa knapsack, a moveable feast
of sandalwood. burnt offerings, hustler
of culture, permitless & perpetually illegal.


Poet, educator, curator and community builder Kevin Coval is the author of 13 books, including A People’s History of Chicago, editor of BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, and co-wrote the play This is Modern Art, which premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre in 2015. He is the artistic director of Young Chicago Authors – winner of the MacArthur award for creative and effective institutions in 2016 & founder of Louder Than a Bomb: the Chicago youth poetry festival and the largest poetry competition in the nation. In 2018, Coval was honored with the Studs Terkel Uplifting Voices Award. His writing has appeared on the Daily Show, fourth season of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, CNN, Poetry Magazine, Fake Shore Drive, and more. He is the editor of the Haymarket Book imprint BreakBeat Publishing, which is dedicated to publishing radically fresh voices, co-hosts the WGN radio podcast The Cornerstore, and teaches hip hop poetics in high schools, colleges and community centers around the globe. Find him on Twitter or Instagram @kevincoval.


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